The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has marked a milestone for commercial unmanned aircraft system operations in the U.S.: The agency's list of approved entities now surpasses 1,000. Throughout the year, the FAA has enacted a number of regulatory changes that helped bring forth this current total.
The commercial UAS industry at the beginning of the year and the commercial UAS industry today are, indeed, night and day: On Aug. 3, a total of 13 approvals were granted in one day – the same number of approvals that were granted in January and February of this year combined.
At the end of 2014, the FAA had issued – through Section 333 of the FAA Modernization Act of 2012 – commercial exemptions to a total of seven companies through eight exemptions: Astraeus Aerial, Aerial MOB, Pictorvision and Flying Cam for closed-set filming; Clayco for aerial imaging and construction; VDOS Global for flare stack inspection; and Woolpert (with two exemptions) for precision aerial surveying.
January of this year brought in three more exemptions, including the first for real estate photography, and February saw 10 more – and notably, in the middle of the month, the long-anticipated release of the proposed rules for small UAS operations.
Although the numbers kept going up in March – 22 more exemptions – it was April that saw a massive uptick, when more than 150 additional exemptions were granted, including to Amazon for finally conducting outdoor testing of its Prime Air UAS delivery service, an initiative first announced by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in December 2013.
This surge directly followed the FAA’s late-March issuance of blanket Certificates of Waiver or Authorizations (COAs), which give automatic COAs to each entity granted a commercial exemption.
These replaced the process of an entity’s applying for a separate COA to fly following the issuance of the exemption, and, instead, gave an automatic OK to fly – provided that the operations do not exceed 200 feet, are within the visual line of sight of the operator, do not take place at night and are with only the aircraft for which the entity received the exemption. According to the FAA, each entity previously had to wait up to 60 days to receive its COA.
Shortly after, with the hope of further expediting Section 333 exemption approvals, the FAA introduced a couple more changes: first, a summary grant process, in which the agency, when granting certain approvals, would then look to previously granted exemptions of a similar category, such as aerial data collection or film production, and base the new approval off of the previous.
“Summary grants are more efficient because approval is based on analysis from a previously granted exemption,” the FAA explains in a news post.
Additionally, the FAA announced it would no longer require a private pilot certificate for exemption holders; rather, a recreational or sport pilot certificate would suffice. The agency also said a valid driver license could take the place of a third-class medical certificate, which was previously required for exemption approval.
In May, the FAA kicked into higher gear and brought in around 250 more exemptions for one month. Fast forward to present day, and the grand total reaches 1,008, the agency says.
In an analysis of the first 500, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) recently noted that over 20 different industries in 48 states got the OK to fly. The most exemptions went to the real estate (30.6%), agriculture (21.2%) and construction (14.8%) industries, and the top five states for exemption holders were California (70), Texas (46), Florida (40), Illinois (18) and Arizona (17).
Despite the progress made in 2015 in terms of the number of exemptions granted, AUVSI says in its report that “the number of applicants continues to greatly outpace approvals.”
In a release, Brian Wynne, AUVSI’s president and CEO, explains that individual approvals are not a “long-term solution” and that the industry needs the small UAS rules in place “as quickly as possible.”
“Once this happens, we will have an established framework for UAS operations that will allow anyone who follows the rules to fly,” he says.
At a June hearing from the Oversight and Government Reform Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, Michael Whitaker, deputy administrator of the FAA, confirmed that the FAA’s plan is to have these rules published within a year’s time – by June 2016.